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10 Key Areas for FFRDCs to Improve their Digital Experience

Aug 21 '18

FFRDCs are the greatest innovators the general public has never heard of—and you need to fix that.

Despite the economic and intellectual wealth that flows from Federally Funded Research Development Centers (FFRDCs), many struggle to execute with digital, and fail to demonstrate their expertise, their leadership, and the value they provide. As the millennial generation firmly enters their 30s and starts to take senior positions, this failure becomes especially problematic for both the grant application process and recruitment.

The Aerospace Corporation is a very cool place to work but your average American is more likely to know about SpaceX.

Here at TAG, we have worked with many FFRDCs, and along the way, have picked up on their most common mistakes. Here we go!

Mistake 1: Lack of Focus

As a person who lives to eat, over time, I have developed something I call the “two cuisine rule:” I won’t eat at a restaurant that focuses on more than one cuisine. Why? When you try to do two things, you don’t do either very well. Textbook example: People who have tried to build cars that were also boats.

Recently, we worked with Aerospace Corporation, a very large organization full of stakeholders with different priorities and many lines of business. It quickly became clear that the most valuable digital asset Aerospace had was their robust content operation. We threw everything else away and distilled the entire site down to focus on that one thing.

By focusing on content, we were able to focus on Aerospace’s many strengths and differentiators and engage the user by optimizing the visitor experience.

What you should do: Make a quick list of everything your site needs to focus on. After identifying each focus, rank them from most to least important. Focus your site strategy on the top two items and commit to deprioritizing everything else.

Mistake 2: Using the wrong models for information architecture

There are two most common mistakes we see FFRDCs make when modeling their information architecture (IA): modeling their IA on a competitor’s site or on how the FFRDC internally organizes into disciplines or departments.

This is the wrong approach. To be clear, you most certainly would benefit from performing research on competitor examples but that should only be one aspect.

The right approach is to model the IA on your own content and your own unique visitor personas. More specifically, you need to take a non-linear, persona-first approach to IA and ensure that the navigation and content organization you present optimizes for your engagement goals for each user profiles. This means one piece of content might need to exist in two or more places, and that’s OK.

This diagram does a good job of explaining what we mean:

Ideal site structure comparison chart

This approach to IA also helps solve another problem we see frequently: awesome content that gets lost in the blog over time (buried by newer content) and never surfaces again. By cross-pollinating in different places, you increase your opportunities for engagement.

What you should do: Completely throw away your existing information architecture (for this exercise—don’t completely throw it out just yet). Write down your top two or three goals for your site on a piece of paper. The only stakeholders you need in an IA discussion are those whose job it is to achieve the goals you just wrote down. Don’t let anyone else in this initial brainstorm (of course, they are welcome later but be wary of too many cooks in the kitchen for this one). Now take a stack of index cards and on each index card write a major content area of the site. Throw all the index cards on a table and start arranging them in the best way possible to support those goals.

Mistake 3: Not investing in a slick design

Scientists care about science and believe that their cutting-edge research is all they need to showcase their organization. Nothing could be further than the truth. (Here’s one of my favorite recent reads on the subject: Impossible to Ignore).

People think that if they list the great features of their products, people will see how useful it is and buy the damn thing. But it doesn’t work that way. You have to engage differently with different buyers, tailor content to their specific problems, and accept that visitors will use your overall brand to evaluate the quality of your offerings.

Whatever design you are working on, whether that’s for a new page or entire site redesign, give your designer time up front to properly address the problem.

Here’s how your team can help: have stakeholders from a few areas spend some time looking at competitors or unrelated examples of what you want to build. Look for examples of things you like: color palette, functionality, fonts, animations, structure, anything that stands out to you.

The key is to take what you and your team like and work with a designer. A designer will be able to break everything down and then use the most important elements to infuse into the final design. Can’t build a house without a foundation and you can’t have a meaningful design without the research.

What you should do: Grab screenshots from the last three or four design examples from your internal design team. Also, grab a few examples of recent public design work from your competitors or aspirational organizations. Take a step back and honestly compare the design work. If yours isn’t clearly better (remember that when there is doubt there is no doubt) you need to hire an outside partner. That outside partner might be a freelancer or an agency, but find one, and be very judgy of their work before signing up to work with them.

Mistake 4: Using stock images

Stock images are the absolute worst. Don’t be that company. Hire a photographer and get real pictures of real people doing real science. It will resonate, it will feel authentic, and it will trigger emotions in people that help improve engagement.

We get it: Not all of your science photographs well and stock photos may be needed. That’s fine, but source them from spots with a little edge, like Unsplash.

Stock photos should be more Kanye West and less Dane Cook.

What you should do: Do the hallway photography test. Take a few of the photos you picked out and show them to a colleague down the hall that isn’t involved in the web project. Ask them “Are these real pictures of our organization or are they stock photographs?” This is one of those important pass/fail situations in like, like a drug test. Also: if you find that your existing custom images aren’t any good either, then that’s the same as having ordinary stock photos.

Mistake 5: Not using data, or only using it once, just before launch

Jim Barksdale, the CEO at Netscape during its prime, has great advice: “If we have data, we’re using that. If all we have are opinions, we’re going with mine.”

FFRDCs frequently have small digital teams that might feel overwhelmed by the amount of work they think collecting and using analytics data involves. But, like many things in life, 20% of the effort can get you 80% of the way there, and that is enough to move the needle.

Every FFRDC should have a simple report in Google Analytics built around their three major key performance indicators (KPIs), and they should check it monthly. Doing this forces you to ask if all of your efforts from the last month improved the overall site. It’s a great way to learn what’s working—and what isn’t.

If you do this every month, and pivot based on results, you’ll be able to improve your site and learn from your mistakes.

What you should do: Write down your top to three digital goals, qualitative or quantitative. Now list out a few different things that might help you achieve these goals. For example, if one of your goals is for your content to be more authoritative you might list “increased time on site” and “more pages per visit”. Now create a report in Google that includes the indicators you identified. This report will let you measure your progress over time and against what you try.

Mistake 6: Failing to engage with your audience once the site is live

Suhail Doshi, the CEO of Mixpanel, says it best: “Most of the world will make decisions by either guessing or using their gut. They will be either lucky or wrong.”

Many organizations forget that data is more than just numbers and statistics. It’s really just information, and great information can come from analytics tools, domain experts, colleagues’ hard-earned experience, and, crucially, customer insights. One easy way to get customer insights is simply to engage with your customers and chat with them on a regular basis. You might be surprised at how much informal check-ins can improve the relationship of the project and help you empathize with your customers.

Customer insight completes the data you need to drive improvements over time. For proof, check out the explosive growth of conversational marketing tools like Drift.

What you should do: Routines work really well here. Set a monthly calendar reminder to reach out to three recent customers (or the would-be partners behind lost deals) and ask them two or three very simple questions about how your website did or didn’t impact their buying decision. If you can, bring something to the conversation that will help them out as well such as anecdotal advice from a recent related experience.

Mistake 7: Not getting personal in the personal century

When historians write about the 21st century, the central theme might be “the personal century.” It’s an era when the growing sophistication and pervasiveness of technology, social networks, global connectivity, and data privacy challenges have led to the rise of individual brands, increasing casualness in business, social conduct, and dress, and the blending of personal and professional lives.

FFRDCs would be wise to embrace this trend. Ask any FFRDC marketing leader what the greatest asset of their organization is and they will likely say that it is their employees. If that is true, then you can’t be afraid to showcase these awesome folks. Increasing the people focus on your digital experience will build a more personal connection with prospects and potential recruits, and help your employees increase their professional influence.

What you should do: Build processes that make it easy for employees to contribute thought leadership content, then share that content far and wide in social networks. Each FFRDC that we’ve worked with has a unique process that fits with their team. The main commonality: get 100% buy-in from your entire team. They are busy making your business money—sometimes this can feel like a lot of extra worth when first getting started. First, capitalize on those team members who will take up this new process naturally. Then, find the weakest link (the person(s) who is most resistant) and work with them to identify how the process can fit their needs. It’s a bit like building the ship after you start sailing but you won’t slow down your stars and the ship will accommodate all crew members over time.

Mistake 8: Believing that if you build it—and don’t talk about it—they will (still) come

FFRDCs tend to forget that they aren’t a product business—they’re a services company. An FFRDC has more in common with a law firm than a technology company in Silicon Valley. And when you’re in a services industry, one thing really resonates with prospects: Have you faced a similar problem to the one I’m facing, and have you worked with organizations like mine?

FFRDCs need to invest heavily in showcasing their success stories, beyond pasting client logos on their sites. This means thoughtful case studies with compelling data and great visuals. It means highlighting team members, and how these unique minds approached various problems.

What you should do: Create a simple process for case studies that includes steps when finishing an effort for the project team involved to document the challenges, approaches, and successes in a document sent to marketing. These raw notes will be the crucial ingredient the marketing team needs to create compelling success stories. If possible, get marketing in the mix even before the project launches so they can identify what they would need to write a successful case study at the end of the project. And if you’re really daring, set up the case study for success from the start by identifying what KPIs you will track so you have compelling results to talk about.

Mistake 9: LinkedIn is for business, Facebook is for fun, and Instagram is for food and FOMO

Think you know what Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Snapchat are used for? Think again.

The audience, effectiveness, composition, and attention of social networks ebbs and flows over time. Facebook has recently been embroiled in controversies involving the 2016 election and data privacy. LinkedIn users are showing fatigue from frequent pestering by recruiters and business development folks, which may indicate flaws in the LinkedIn product itself, a hot economy, or both. Snapchat seems to have entered a slow decline, pushing users to Instagram, which you might think doesn’t matter, but it’s becoming an increasingly common mode of communication for people under thirty Email might soon join the written letter at the old folks home.

The point of all of this is that you need to constantly reevaluate your social media strategy. Look at your social traffic sources from the perspective of your conversion flows and success metrics. A lack of social engagement may indicate serious issues with the overall strategy.

What you should do: Check the conversion success of various social channels monthly. Allocate a modest budget for paid social media and pick five stories to promote. Carefully measure engagement for each of the five stories and identify the most impactful content. Compare this winner to the rest to identify the characteristics that may have contributed to improved engagement. Roll this insight into your next batch of content creation, rinse and repeat.

Mistake 10: Assuming a CMS can’t make your life easier

It’s true that content management systems (CMS) kind of suck. They’re always inflexible in just the way you don’t need, finicky about formatting, and frequently obtuse when you are under a deadline. These issues are a real problem because the marketing teams of most FFRDCs are on the lean side of lean.

But don’t give up! The trick is to find the least bad CMS and make sure it’s built to support your workflow, not fight it. Making the right investment in the backend—not to achieve complete content flexibility (that is too expensive)—but to make your unique team’s workflow a little easier will compound over time in improved digital success.

What you should do: Get complete clarity and specificity on your six-month digital strategy. Lock that shit down and make a list of your digital goals. Also, make a list of all the pain points of your CMS. Now, make a venn diagram to identify the specific CMS pain points that will actually help you achieve your strategic goals. Throw away every CMS refinement that doesn’t help, and spend your engineering dollars on those that do. If you don’t feel like doing this process or it feels overwhelming, get a freelancer or agency to help you out. Sure, it will cost you money up front but you either pay someone to get it right or save your money but risk running into a lot of costly roadblocks later.

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